On Labour Day weekend, I unexpectedly spent two days in a huge lovely house outside North Hatley in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. The house was steps from Lake Massawippi and surrounded by green hills and fields dotted with quirky art installations made by the owner’s mother. It came equipped with multiple porches, a surplus of outdoor lounging furniture (including a giant hammock that could fit three across), the most gorgeous kitchen ever (hello wooden-chopping-block-covered island!), a smelly dog and scrawny elderly cat, barbecue, window seats, and shelves of books. We swam in the crisp, cold lake. We consumed multiple bottles of wine, cooked elaborate meals, and bought a raspberry pie from a roadside fruit and vegetable stand. In short, I was able to fulfill all my vacation fantasies in one weekend.
I suspect that many of said fantasies stem from re-reading Then There Were Five, which manages to capture all of the idylls of a country summer in one little wartime children’s novel. TTWF is the third book of the Melendy family trilogy, which is often referred to as “the Melendy Quartet.” (It’s true that there is a fourth Melendy book, but it is sui generis, since Spiderweb for Two features only the two youngest children, Randy and Oliver, in a sort of book-long puzzle mystery.)
While the first book, The Saturdays, is an account of the Melendys’ solo adventures in New York City, the second and third are set in their new house in the countryside, the Four-Storey Mistake. You can just imagine their harried economist father thinking, “Hey, why don’t I sell my leaky-roofed Manhattan brownstone and move my family into a Victorian mansion in rural upstate New York?” You would think that four born-and-bred city kids would balk at the thought of being transplanted into such a drastically different environment, but these four seem pretty stoked about moving to the country. Only Randy is upset at first – but that’s because she’s sad to leave the house, and she is completely won over by the end of Chapter 1 of the second book. (The most puzzling aspect of the move is Willy Sloper, the Melendys’ “furnace man” in the city, who follows them to the countryside to become their general handyman and tender-of-livestock. Who makes a living tending one family’s furnace? And how are Willy’s skills so transferable?)
Like The Saturdays, TTWF is episodic, describing the children’s escapades during their first summer living in the FSM. In addition to the (Victory G)arden [it is WWII, after all!], orchard, barns, waterfall, and brook, the house is surrounded by woods, fields, lakes, farms, even a cave. This snippet from the opening chapter (in which the Melendys build a dam in their brook to make a swimming hole, natch), sums the whole novel up nicely:
“All summer,” said Rush, with his mouth full. “Think of it. All summer long.”
“All summer what?” Mona wanted to know.
“Just all summer,” Rush said happily. “I mean this is only the beginning of it. Dams and swimming and the garden and picnics and hot days and all. Oh boy.”
Here is what happens in the book: Randy and Rush go on a scrap metal drive. Randy jumps off a hayloft for the first time. Oliver goes fishing daily. At night he turns on his flashlight to attract and observe moths. Randy and Rush swim in a quarry-turned-lake. Randy finds her first arrowhead. They pack giant picnic lunches. Rush lies in the woods watching the Perseid meteor showers and gets poison ivy. Mona wears cotton dresses and recites lots of Shakespeare. She commandeers the family’s sugar rations to make pies and jam. And each scene makes you think: “Wow… I wish I were there doing that right now”:
That’s it, really. There is an underlying plotline, almost as an afterthought, about Mark, a local orphaned farm boy who is abused by his nasty alcoholic uncle, which [spoiler!] culminates in a timely death by fire and an adoption (and Then There Were Five!). But it is the slices-of-life portions of the book (swimming, picnics, star-gazing, detailed descriptions of pie-making and canning) which have stuck with me and fuelled my summer vacation-longing. I don’t know much about Elizabeth Enright’s life, but Wikipedia tells me she spent parts of her youth at Frank Lloyd Wright’s boyhood farm in Spring Green, Wisconsin. I imagine, then, that she was quite familiar with picturesque country mansions and bucolic rural landscapes.
- In one chapter, Mark and Rush slather on citronella to (successfully) ward off mosquitoes. Has that stuff worked for anyone, ever?
- Does anyone remember how Mona wears a whole strawberry plant, “leaves, blossoms, and fruit,” in her freshly washed blond hair and her little brother Oliver asked, “Why not the roots, too?” And then Randy wishes earnestly to be half as pretty as Mona when she grows up, but a few minutes later decides she would rather be able to throw a ball like a boy? I love Randy.
Reading Ages: 9-13
Note: I think of this is my back-to-school post, even if it’s October already and I’m not going back to school this year. I hope to take advantage of my newfound freedom-from-academia to post more stuff here. Honest.